In Kuato’s Game World, Knowledge is Power, and the AIs are Friendly

7/31/12Follow @wroush

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some 1990s technology: the “Visions” feature in several of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games, which consisted of short video segments designed to help lost players get unstuck.

Meehan says he’s been watching SRI’s VPA technology evolve ever since leading Horizons’ investments in Siri and Trapit. “I have had a very big interest in education and gaming for quite some time,” he says. “I started the company in early January to look at how we could utilize this new generation of VPA technology in that field.”

To build Kuato’s first game, Meehan says he recruited game designers from top studios like Rockstar Games, Sony Computer Entertainment, EA, Konami, and Ideaworks. The company also has “an awesome education team,” he says, but the game designers are taking the lead. That’s because most previous educational games have been “made by education teams and, by their nature, were very worthy but pretty dull,” Meehan says. “It’s just the wrong people, in terms of getting kids excited.”

Next the company had to identify a topic area. It settled on something well outside the usual classroom subjects: programming, and in later levels of the game, graphic design, animation, and even a little evolutionary genetics.

A "Learn More" screen about XML from Kuato's game

“These are skills they are not getting in school,” Meehan says. “It’s very clear from our research that kids want to learn how to build games and code and make movies, because they know those are the skills of the future.” Aside from appealing to tweens and teens, that choice also allows Kuato to go outside the traditional marketplaces for educational software, Meehan says. “We are not selling to schools—we’re going straight to the kids and their parents.”

Kuato’s engineers started coding in earnest about 11 weeks ago. What they’ve built so far looks a lot more like something out of the console games Halo or Dead Space than a typical educational game. “We don’t want it to feel like homework in any way,” Meehan emphasizes.

As the game begins, the ship has just crashed, the lights are off, and the oxygen is running out. The player’s first task is to steer the main character to an environmental station, hack into the computer, and fix the recharging station that runs the lights. This involves a minigame in which the player must modify some actual XML code by changing a value from “false” to “true.”

“It might be a little too advanced, but we will be throwing stuff at them pretty quickly,” Meehan says. “We don’t have any multiple choice or quizzes. They just have to do things. It’s kind of like The Hunger Games—in order to survive, they have to learn.”

But players aren’t totally on their own. This is where Alice comes in. At any point, players can consult the VPA, which, like Siri, has a speech-based interface. Using his iPad, Meehan steered the player-character to the recharging station and demonstrated for me.

Meehan: “Can you help me?”

Alice: “It appears that you need to recharge. But first you need to repair the charging station.”

Meehan: “How do I do that?”

Alice: “You must change the value inside the XML from ‘false’ to ‘true.’”

Meehan: “What is XML?”

Alice: “XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language….I found some information for you…” [At this point, just as Siri would, Alice brought up a live Wikipedia entry on XML.]

To fix the ship and repel the aliens, the player must proceed to a series of stations, where each task builds on … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.meldrum Audrey Meldrum

    I would like to try this game. Looks very interesting. Hmmm…